The hospice nurse is gloves-and-salve practical.
She says: your mother must want something from you.
My mother can’t walk or talk. Her body is bones wrapped in reams of moth skin. Her brain works in insect twitches.
At the nursing home, there’s an awkward expectation for her to die.
My mother looks at me, wanting something. The dark yokes of her eyes are always the same. I think we’re both confused about beginnings and endings.
I imagine telling the nurse: You’ve got the wrong girl. I never give her what she wants.
I’m a grabber and a snatcher.
I knew it when I plucked the rose from our neighbor’s prized garden. My small fist on the stalk. The snap made me think I’d surprised it, and I was ashamed. My mother, watching from the kitchen window, came outside with her Nikon. The picture’s in a frame on the wall. It is the closest of close-ups. Black and white. Me, in profile, the face slack, the one eye in distress, the flower-head pressed to my lips. I’ve stopped wanting the rose already.
I knew when I found the dead bird with the metal leg band in our backyard. I thought the metal was a precious thing, and I wanted it more than anything. I raced inside for my blunt school scissors. The procedure was premeditated and slow. Long enough for me to be repulsed by my persistence. The leg flopped back and forth as I worked its sinew, working it into a not-a-real-leg. When it was over, I knew I’d mutilated a dead bird and that I’d never forget that about myself. Those digits etched in the flimsy cuff. The stupidity of hope.
Here’s what I need to tell that nurse. My mother started to want when I was one year old, when she took me on a plane overseas to see her dying, estranged mother.
My mother always told the story with gritted teeth. Her mother was gone by the time we landed. I had been an unsleeping terror on an all-night flight.
I imagine that plane’s hydraulic thrum. I hear it in the obscene lift the two attendants use to move her in and out of bed every day.
In the middle school popular clique, it was shoplifting. At the local department store, Liz Miller and I glided up and down the escalators, licking our chops. I plucked at trembling racks of earrings. I got so good I could take one, two, three cardigans on the featured rack. I wanted and wanted, and so it would only stop when I got caught. My mother says: You’ve always been a greedy little girl.
These things that I took and took and snatched and grabbed? The bird band and the rose and the cardigans? Their currency was bogus.
As soon as I get to her floor, I hear my mother loud and clear. She can’t talk, but now she is screaming.
An attendant understands this as: More tea!
I’m the only one who can translate her. She wants her mother and I want my mother. I picture us all as hungry bird mouths. Little openings, skyward, stretched out to an aching point, stretched to infinity.
Give them permission to go. Help them settle the unfinished business. Assure them you will be fine.
I imagine death as no more asks and no more wants. I imagine the coolness that comes over the body, just like the hospice pamphlet described. My mother, myself, at peace, wanting nothing, limbs unencumbered by flesh and blood, unmoved by removal.
Michelle Ephraim is Associate Professor of English at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she teaches courses on literature and creative writing. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Tikkun, Lilith, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Morning News, and other publications. Michelle Ephraim has been featured on The Moth Radio Hour and is the co-author of Shakespeare, Not Stirred: Cocktails for Your Everyday Dramas (Penguin, 2015).
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #30.